Category Archives: Teaching
I did it. I finished my final paper for my second to last course in grad school. The class is Communication Strategies in Emerging Media. We had a choice of class objectives from which to choose. I chose the following from Dr Daisy Pignetti at UW Stout:
Analyze the ways emerging media and digital technologies are changing our workplaces, classrooms, and social lives with emphasis on the technical and professional communication workplace.
I work regularly with engineers in my professional life, and I’ve always found them and their workplace norms interesting. I started to dig into best practices when communicating with engineers – how and when they prefer to do so, etc. This is a big ask of a professional technical communicator in today’s workplace, especially when they’re striving to appeal to a broad audience via emerging media. I found quite a few trends in the resources I collected. With the help of Dr Pignetti’s feedback, I narrowed my paper’s focus to two main points. One, engineers, surprisingly, largely prefer to work directly with others to complete the task at hand. Two, proofreading isn’t as common as it should be, but lots of authors mention it’s importance. This is the introduction to my paper:
While content and products tailored to distinct audiences is an archetype for business, today’s technical communicators are increasingly expected to appeal to a wide range of consumers via various emerging media and technological channels on behalf of their company. In order to collaborate with diverse teams to produce the needed content, technical communicators must adopt effective collaboration methods throughout the life of a project, including how to elicit needed information from engineers and ensure that final products are useful to broad audiences. Bridging gaps between creators and consumers remains a central role for technical communicators in 2020.
The most intriguing new discovery I made is how some authors are automating the identification of expert jargon in academic and professional writings (see Rakedzon, T., Segev, E., & Chapnik, N. (2017)). The potential for utilizing AI rather than developing focus groups is definitely a topic I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Albert Einstein is credited as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The first time I heard this quote paraphrased I was being instructed to explain the concept in a way that even a six-year-old could understand. That idea has shaped the way I take any idea or skill in my curriculum and work to translate it into what my students will actually see and hear. For example, before I cover advanced punctuation issues in my students’ writing, I have to go back and review the parts of speech. Do I think (and maybe do you think) it’s a little ridiculous to be covering nouns and verbs in higher education? Sometimes I think that, yes. Does it change the fact that it makes a noticeable difference in whether or not students are able to grasp the other more “college-worthy” topics that we shift to within the same class period? Yes. It does. In the end, what I, a professional with nearing decades of experience in the content, think doesn’t trump what my audience (students) needs. If my objective is their learning; my product must meet them where they are.
For teachers, it should go without saying that the audience determines how the required curriculum is communicated. I’d bet, though, that anyone reading could share stories of teachers who seemed unable to bridge the gap between their own content-area expertise and the lack thereof in their students.
Technical writers have the same challenge. If they cannot access the needs of their audience, their products will fail. And, as much as a classroom is made of individual students with unique needs, those who engage with the technical products of TPC professionals have just as many idiosyncratic demands. Anne Blakeslee writes in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” (2010), chapter 8 in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “It is dangerous, especially in cyberspace writing, to presume that your writing will have a limited and well-defined audience” (p. 201). It might seem that teachers have the advantage over their technical communicator and writer peers here because they do work personally with their students, but what advantage they’ve ever had, if there was one, is disappearing in online classrooms. Essentially, everyone has to find out “after the fact… and from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). In both cases, these come in the form of personal complaints, online ratings, and failure to meet objective measures of success.
Interestingly, it seems that the same procedures and practices to address this issue serve both professions. Blakeslee offers three pieces of information that writers [teachers] should seek out regarding their readers [students]: “How readers [students] will read and interact with their documents. How and in what contexts readers [students] will use their documents. What expectations readers [students] will bring to their digital documents” (p. 213). Whether we read these suggestions from the perspective of a technical writer crafting documents for the user of a new pressure cooker or a student in a math classroom, the deliverables crafted and shared in either case will be more successful for having the information listed above about their specific audiences.
The recent disruption to traditional education has accelerated the overlapping spaces like these between the professions of education and technical writing. These new digital spaces that have merged with and sometimes replaced our classrooms will never go away entirely. In “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communication Practices,” Ferro and Zachry assert that, “extending the field’s longstanding concern for people and their informed engagement with the products and processes of technology, technical communicators have a role in ‘the new work processes’ wherein individuals are ‘cooperative and flexible’ with the ability ‘to act as an interface between new technology and human interaction’’’ (p. 18). As students of all ages learn to navigate various online learning management systems, work their webcams, blur their Zoom backgrounds, and still learn the assigned content, teachers are pulled in to support all those elements. Now, regardless of their subject, they are teaching their students how to engage in and build shared knowledge via technology.
Dr. Stacy Pigg highlights similar ideas in “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” writing “Writers must construct relational networks among people with shared interests and sense opportunities for future action and consider when and how to shift practices or discourse in response to them” (p. 70). If that’s not what a teacher is doing within their classroom, then I don’t know that it’s actually happening anywhere.
Earlier, I alluded to the fact that most people have had more than one experience with a teacher who in some way failed to make their user/audience/student the center of their teaching, usually with frustrating/boring/disastrous results. Perhaps a clarification of teacher as professional communicator would be enough to improve those teachers and their classrooms. For those teachers struggling to find their new groove in this remote/hybrid/synchronous/asynchronous environment, an acknowledgment of the very real, very professional and technical, and very valuable realities of their work could likewise help them find their teacher identity in these new responsibilities.
In any event, regardless of the context and the content, the needs of the audience have to rule the priorities of the communication in both formally recognized professional and technical communication as well as in teaching. Maybe those professional communicators can learn from the attention good teachers have always paid to their students’ needs, and teachers can benefit from viewing their work through a TPC lens of supporting technology integration and modeling, as well as practicing, knowledge work.
It’s fun to ask kids this question. It’s even still fun to ask my husband this question sometimes. He’s on his third or fourth career change (depending on whether a return to teaching after leaving it counts as a new career) before 40. When my kids feel stressed because they don’t know where they want to commit their professional lives before they enter high school, I laugh and tell them, “That’s ok. There’s a good chance your job doesn’t exist yet.”
Technical writers might feel the same on any given day. As Saul Carliner proves in “Computers and Technical Communication” (2010), his contribution to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice, both the audience, the content, and the expertise required of technical writers has evolved as quickly as technology and the digital world has. From first needing to write the manuals on how to use the technology and needing the technical skills more than the writing skills, to writing for highly skilled professionals, to creating content for the average person with no technical experience at all, to managing branding and social media, it seems that the skills students planning to pursue their careers in this field will be better served to be taught how to write, how to communicate, how to think critically, and how to keep learning because any specific content they are given on technology is bound to be outdated by the time they graduate.
As if technology wasn’t moving quickly enough on it’s own, this global pandemic arrives to disrupt that flow and accelerate things like eCommerce, online education, remote learning, entertainment, socializing, grocery shopping, and health care. The World Trade Organization’s “eCommerce, Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic Report,” “spurred by social distancing and stay-at-home requirements, e-commerce in services that
can be delivered electronically has flourished, with demand rising sharply.” In response, Under Armor recently announced it “plans to prioritize direct-to-consumer sales and exit 2,000 to 3,000 wholesale locations by 2022.” Facebook says it’s messaging app, as well as video chat usage is up by 50%.
It’s not just all-digital business, either, though. Grocery store curbside pickup and delivery has achieved a level of integration it would have taken years to achieve without the stay home orders and other pandemic-related changes to our everyday lives. This requires the quick development and then maintenance and continuing evolution of webpages and apps. It requires blogging and social media coverage to communicate and generate attention for a specific company’s services over another’s. It’s new customers, new buying and spending habits, new organizational priorities.
In “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” (2014), Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran, conclude that students in technical writing programs “should be exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication in a given situation, … be exposed to a wide range of technologies that will facilitate that process, … [and] be versatile with multiple media.” This seems sound. This is not a list of specific technologies or skills to be mastered. Instead it’s much bigger, more abstract, and infinitely more suited to the nonstop changes that are to be the technical writer’s only certainty.
This week we tackled Chapters 3-5 in Spilka’s 2010 text Digital Literacy. Working backwards with Chapter 5: “Content Management,” the chapter’s author William Hart-Davidson reassures us that technical communicators should not be so fretful about their profession since the proliferation of content management in the digital age will make their jobs more valuable, not less. However, he shares that “in an information economy, more workers will write” (p. 129). So while content management will alleviate some of the fears of job loss that technical communicators face, they must accept that more people in their organizations will write. In some ways, this gives technical writers even more to do; as in, do they become the gatekeepers of all communication? Realistically, they cannot. With an already-expanding job description, technical writers cannot manage all the tasks of content creation plus content management in a silo or as a solitary member of the team. They need help, which is where educators can help to reinforce the need for strong writing skills, across disciplines. Quotes like those help reinforce for my undergraduate students that they all need better writing skills, no matter what profession they are going into. If “communication is why companies operate,” then all workers must be better communicators (p. 135).
As I read chapters 3-5 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), I realized that as the instructor/content manager of multiple Blackboard shells for multiple classes, I am acting as a technical writer for the classes I teach. With a background in technical writing, I hope that I am skilled at thinking about usability, audience needs, and communication when I create those shells, but putting myself in the mind of a technical communicator can possibly allow me to see the areas where my students struggle, particularly important for online courses. In Chapter 4: “Information Design,” authors Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explain how “technical communicators are well situated to contribute to the development of information spaces and to advocate for users needs in emerging digital spaces” (p. 105). My primary job as an instructor is to help my students understand and apply content, so it is in my best interest and theirs to give more consideration to how they use our digital spaces. Much of what the authors cover in this chapter aligns with what we discuss when reviewing audience analysis and writing purposes. The same tenets apply to critical literacy.
Salvo and Rosinski made me ponder how I apply the notions of granularity, mapping, signposting, metadata, and pattern language in my classes. Over the last several years, our college has created and mandated a standard template that all instructors must use in designing their Blackboard (like D2L) shells. The left-side navigation is all the same, and there are standard buttons we must all use; however, we can customize the design (colors and flair) of the Blackboard shell, add buttons, and arrange the content within the shell as we so choose. When this change was first proposed, there was faculty outcry about academic freedom, but the changes were user driven. Our students had complained about the lack of consistency from instructor to instructor, course to course. Looking over the shoulders of students as they try to find information helps me see where more or fewer signposts are needed. The authors caution that we shouldn’t expect users to remember a virtual space’s ambience, so adding in additional maps and signposts could be helpful (p. 12).
Finally, with Chapter 3: “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” author Dave Clark highlights three main theories we can begin to apply to the “rhetoric of technology” to better understand it, or to assess the “broader implications” and “potential influence” that technologies have on how we communicate (p. 87). This chapter inspired me to create an assignment that asks students to analyze their expectations of, experiences with, and performance of a certain tool, say Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I’ve formerly assigned a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, but asking students to perform a rhetorical analysis on a tool of communication may be valuable to them and could reveal some real benefits and issues with those tools.
No doubt that new technologies and tools will carve new avenues of consideration for technical communicators and educators and will affect how we talk about and practice the rhetoric of technology. Just as the World Wide Web had to outgrow its ugly baby stage to reach maturation, all new tech tools will force societies to determine their best uses, standards, and rules. Again, the overarching theme of all of these three chapters seems to be to remain flexible and open to change, and to consider the hows and whys of what we do and how to do it best.
This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.
When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.
When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.
At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and
marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.
Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.
No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is.
Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.
P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.
As I read Dave Clark’s “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” I was immediately brought back to rhetorical theory class with Dr. Dana Heller at Old Dominion University. I envisioned the chalkboard (yes, that long ago!) with drawing about sign, symbol and signifier of de Saussure and interpretrent, representamen and object of Charles Sanders Pierce.
Of course, I teach my students how to write a rhetorical analysis in some of my composition classes, but we usually don’t delve into theory, so I enjoyed reading about it again in another graduate class, albeit 20 years later, and to learn about applying it to technologies. According to Clark, rhetorical analysis is “a loose grouping of related types of work that share a common goal: complicating common-sense understandings of technologies by analyzing them from a variety of rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical processes” ( 2010, pg. 92-3). Clark discusses how the classical rhetorical approach can be effective; however “Johnson suggests that as a field we must argue for a rhetorical approach to technological design and implementation that places the users, rather than the systems, at the center of our focus. . .(2010, p. 93). I agree, for when I teach my students about technical writing, I have them focus on audience, purpose and context. This line of thinking done before drafting is similar to one who designs and builds technology. Those designers must consider the user, their purpose and the context of which they will use that technology. When I have my students write website reviews, they critique the design, function, userability, etc. as it relates to the user. These reviews are written for a website designer in order to make the website more appealing and functional for the users.
If one is going to create technology, it is only logical to consider the audience who will use that technology, how they will use that technology and with whom they will use that technology. Therefore, activity theory considers groups and individuals who “are analyzed with a triangular approach that emphasizes the multidirectional interconnections among subjects, the mediational means or the tools they use to take action and the object or problem space on which the subject acts” (Clark, 2010, 98-99).
So, since technology emerged and reshaped man’s ability to communicate and complete tasks, the rhetoric of technology had to emerge and be shaped to meet the more complex world we live in. There is an obvious correlation between classic rhetorical theory and activity theory of technology today.
Technology today is embedded in our lives and we need to examine the contexts in which we rely on them in order to understand, assess and design them in order for ease and use of their users.
All three readings this week seemed to focus on the ways that the world has adapted to social media and services. In the workplace, our education system, and our personal lives, we have changed how we interact and communicate with each other. There are also new opportunities that social media and services can give us that we have no fully explored yet. This leads to the question; how can we fully take advantage of these new opportunities when we do not fully understand how much or little limitations we have? I will explore aspects of success and failure with both education and work-related adaptations to online services and social media.
The classroom is no longer limited to school hours or physical boundaries. Online classes and academic services used by schools are helping education reach and accommodate more students. Ferro et al. argues that education has expanded to be more inclusive and participatory. Students do not have to wait until class starts, as online resources can help them keep in close communication. Online forums for classes have always been helpful for commonly asked questions by students to help everyone involved in the class more efficiently share knowledge and misunderstandings in coursework.
I cannot argue that using online services for school isn’t helpful, but I do feel like it has a long way to go. With the budget limitations every education system has, it is difficult to quickly improve and create a more efficient online educational environment. I am currently enrolled in two Universities and taking online courses with both. The other University I am getting my Master’s degree in computer science. Compared to my bachelors which was all in person, this experience has been much more of an independent journey. Half of the fun of college was meeting people and talking to them about literally anything but school. I do think that online courses can be improved in relation to this. For example, what if we were provided with, encouraged, or expected to use an active communication service, like a chat service, to get to know each other and collaborate with better. Forums and email give us passive communication, and this can lead to students and teachers only discussing what they need to get work completed. It feels much less likely we will actually get to know small details about each other when we have our real lives offline. Longo states that community can be as much “an act of exclusion as it is an inclusion” (p. 5). It seems as though the online classroom has created a community that is more academic than social.
When reading Pigg’s article about distributed work I was quite surprised in the direction that was taken. I thought it would focus on a company like mine with offshore workers, but instead it was much simpler. The study on Dave and his fatherhood blog was completely inspiring. I was very impressed by his ability to establish a niche community in a boundary-less environment of the internet. I love that the internet gives a voice to people like this. In the book industry, you may have the best idea, but getting published is still chalked up to luck. Now we have this uncharted opportunity to be both a writer and an entrepreneur. Being successful may still have to do with luck, but getting your work into a public domain is trivial.
Pigg also brings up room for improvement in the work environment especially when considering employees restrictions involving “cyberslacking” and internet monitoring. Although it may be obvious that certain websites may be inappropriate for work, the nature of my job relies heavily on access to multiple services and social media sites. One example is that we have Skype and most chat options blocked on our internal network. Half of my team members live in Maryland whom I have to call daily, so we end up creatively huddling around phones and sharing web communication tool accounts just to do our jobs. Additionally, integration with certain social media sites can be required depending on the projects we are working on. To do this we have to ask special permission from IT to do jobs assigned to us. Ferro et al. explores the expanding usage of social media and online services that people use to complete their jobs today. It looks as though we will need to reevaluate our approach and the tradeoffs of restrictions vs. employee efficiency.
Both work and education have gone through a lot of trial and error in order to adapt and take advantage of online technologies. Although there seem to be a lot of potential innovations, these aspects of our lives have budgetary limitations that cannot afford error. At the rate technology is changing these parts of our lives may never fully embrace the newest capabilities available, but they are definitely opening up new opportunities.
This is my first course for my certificate requirements. I wasn’t totally sure I would “fit” into the MSTPC program since my background is literature, and I have limited experience with technical writing and media. I saw it as a challenge of my boundaries of knowledge. However, as a reader of some of the class material, I felt I was not part of the target audience since I am not familiar with technical writer jargon etc. Of course, if a reader cannot relate to the material, it is a struggle to maintain interest and focus. Nonetheless, I kept on reading. As I was reading Blythe, Lauer and Curran’s “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” I began to relate, to focus and to reflect.
I teach mainly composition at a technical college, yet we still devise our composition classes as if they were for a four-year college. I have had some of my students complain about having to take one writing class since they felt it didn’t pertain to their program. Of course, in the end they understand that any writing genre (mainly essays) will help them communicate more effectively in their careers. However, the set curriculum may not be sufficient if many of my technological-minded students are going into careers where more technical writing would be the norm.
A student who graduates from a technical school is more apt to be required to write similar forms of communication as mentioned in Blyth, Lauer and Curran’s report. Figure 1 (Blythe, Lauer and Curran, 2014, p. 273) lists research papers only on the bottom of the type most valued column; whereas, emails, instruction manuals, websites, presentations and blogs are at the top of both the list of most often used and most valued. So, perhaps I can begin making changes in my courses to meet the future needs of my students.
I am not discounting the value of essay writing and the objectives of our mandatory writing courses, for it does require the skills needed to do many of the more technical forms of writing. However, perhaps exposing students to other genres of writing would be beneficial in that it may attract the interest of a more tech-savvy (or interested) audience and may lead students to feel like they are getting more out of their course that they can apply directly to their programs and future careers.
Perhaps being a student again (not originally by choice) has reminded me of how my students feel when entering my required classes. Plus, this class is broadening my understanding of writing and the value of different forms of communicating in today’s technical world. Hopefully, my students will feel the same.
Working together can create more meaning and bring more understanding of the world around us. The ideas in Chapter 4 of Net Smart by Rhiengold (2012) especially regarding collective intelligence and the function of the Internet to create communities, groups, and audiences that create a deeper meaning of what is happening around them is very powerful and applicable to our work with analyzing and reviewing social media principles as well as our work as technical communicators.
I have heard complaints from the generation before mine, professors, staff members, and students that came before, that the way we learn and take in information currently does not take the same amount of effort and time that it used to, thus we are as a whole not as smart as we could be, as they had to be in the world before the World Wide Web.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Are things different? Definitely. For the most part, we do not have to deal with card catalogs and worrying about not obtaining the library book we need because someone already has it out. But what we do have is mountains of information at our fingertips that needs to be read through, researched, analyzed, and ultimately accepted or discarded as useful to the project that need to be completed.
Thinking about it as the natural reaction our society has had to the advent of technology and connectedness, collective intelligence seems like a great place for us to be in.
“Now that we have gained access to digital tools that enable us to share what we know and aggregate small contributions into large knowledge repositories, a new level of collective intelligence is possible” (p. 160).
Just as a reality, it is fascinating how much I find myself depending on the opinions and knowledge of others in my personal and professional life.
I read Yelp reviews and will search through a few pages for tips and tricks about shopping: how to do it effectively, where to go for the best prices, and when to go to avoid the most foot traffic.
I use my coworkers as sounding boards when working on projects, running edits, changes, style issues, and new copy by one or more people to see how they react, even when we’re working on completely different projects.
This trend is so important to the way we think about knowledge and learning. It may seem like an obvious idea. We learn currently from teachers and professors, those who go to school and study techniques specifically to learn how to instruct and impart knowledge on others, but to my mind there is still so much stigma associated with the spirit of collective intelligence in schoolwork.
Beginning your career as a student, you do not learn that it is your right, I would say responsibility, to question the font of knowledge: a teacher. In order to retain control over groups of wild children, teachers must be seen as the ultimate authority in their spaces. As you grow older and become more comfortable with yourself and the idea that you have to have your own opinions and thoughts about the world around you, you are inundated with cultural norms and taboos. They are subjects you can’t bring up in public without receiving a negative reaction: sex, politics, and religion. There are other subjects that only apply to you and place you into a subgroup: race, gender, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity.
By high school you have hopefully learned all the rules, overtly taught to you and covertly gathered by osmosis and have gone through puberty so hopefully you have become a version of yourself that can function in society. You have created PowerPoints and book reports and scientific models. But beyond being forced into groups by your teachers, it is still up to the teacher as the superior figure to create meaning and focus your attention on the facts and figures that you need to know.
That long analogy is meant to draw attention to the fact that with the Internet and social media, it is up to us to create meaning and monitor the information and knowledge being influenced and cultivated around us. I cannot say with complete certainty that children are reacting differently in classes. There are thousands of studies and reports about classroom teaching and management that are authored about the changes going on in classrooms because of technology and the Internet.
What works for me is the idea that we are demanding more of our teaching professionals and of ourselves than we have before. Yes, the Internet gives everyone a platform to shout their opinions from the rooftop (leading to a degradation of fields like traditional print media). It also gives us the ability to share what we know with each other, outside of the limits of a roundtables and desks with tiny chairs. Even outside the bounds of an online course taught by a PhD.
Rheingold, Howard. (2014). Net Smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization. When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”. But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization. At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it). But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs). And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.
I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs. In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking. Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say. But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).
I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world). In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.
I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training. But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.
As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need. It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication. Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).
- This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
- Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
- We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.
Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above. It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience. Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61). But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.
For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages. The content, design, and layout was all brutal. In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff. Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle. At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.
So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?
Dicks, S. (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81). New York: Taylor & Francis.
Where do we come off knowing how a user will access the web? With Google, I can find something that’s deep within a site, and avoid all the crumbs to get to the page I wanted. In Spilka’s book, Ann Blakeslee makes the good point that technical communicators need to shift from “developing documentation based on what writers think their readers need,” to how they “will actually use the information to complete a task” (p. 216). Luckily, we expect repetition in both communication and online. So we can have the same information on more than one page on a website to make sure someone sees it, even if they skipped the two pages leading up to the page they sought.
That is the science. The art is how much to say and what to omit so as to keep the added value of visiting the site (so it’s not just ten pages of the same information over and over again). But, I think that’s a secondary concern. The first concern is to have a task-based infrastructure so that the audience can find what they’re looking for, and not have to sift through paragraphs of information. About the ‘how much to add where’ question, I think it’s a constant challenge to keep tweaking. From my personal experience, I’d rather have a straightforward answer to my query, and then I can dive into the hyperlink tunnel to find more answers if I so wish. That way I do get to know what the website has to offer, just not in a linear manner.
So should we change to a task-based communication? Yes. If you think not, I’d love to hear why; I am open to changing my mind on this if I hear a compelling reason.
Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was written specifically for me! Many items described in the first two chapters—recent introduction of Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), structured authoring and reuse, implementation of a content management system (CMS), transition of job and team titles, and participating in agile development methodology—affect me directly.
Job title and team name transitions
Digital technology has personally changed my job, job titles, and team name in less than two years at Hewlett-Packard. In July 2013, I started as a contract technical writer on the Technical Publications (Tech Pubs) team.
Four months later, I was converted to a full-time employee and my job title was replaced: information developer. Around this same time, my manager decided that our team would be called Information Development (Info Dev).
Last May, our division was restructured and our team name changed for a third time; we are now called Content Development and Delivery (Content). Moreover, since I managed the FrameMaker conversion to DITA project, I plan to renegotiate my job title at my annual performance review next month to information architect.
We also work on small teams (based on our product offerings) that incorporate the agile development methodology.
FrameMaker conversion to DITA
This past year, I championed a project—including tracking and documenting the entire process—that converted our FrameMaker product library into DITA.
What is DITA?
In Saul Carliner’s chapter “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”, he describes DITA as an XML-based architecture that divides content into small, self-contained chunks of information that can be reused into several different communication products (pg. 42).
The highest structure in DITA is a topic: a single XML file. DITA has three main topic types: concept, task, and reference. In her book, Introduction to DITA Second Edition: A Basic User Guide to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, Including DITA 1.2, JoAnn Hackos defines the three topic types with questions:
- Concept: What is this about?
- Task: How do I?
- Reference: What else? This information may also include APIs, error messages, or command line reference lists.
All of the DITA topics can then be assembled, prioritized, and collected into a DITA map—basically a Table of Contents.
Our FrameMaker conversion to DITA process included the following high-level steps:
- Evaluate and select an XML editor. We looked at MadCap Flare, AuthorIT, XMetaL, and oXygen. After much debate, we selected XMetaL.
- Conduct a content inventory to identify and prioritize which FrameMaker books to convert. In addition to documenting software, we also document hardware, and decided to keep these guides in FrameMaker—it’s static content that does not change very often. We also decided to keep our legacy software releases in FrameMaker and only converted the latest version.
- Clean up the source FrameMaker files as much as possible before the conversion to ensure that just the right amount of information was included within a given Heading. Not all of our existing content was consistently structured to contain one concept, one procedure, or one set of reference information. We determined that the PDF generated from FrameMaker would be our source of record to verify that all content was correctly converted.
- Create and run a Mif2Go script to convert every FrameMaker Heading into its own DITA topic. The script also attempted to accurately transfer every paragraph and character tag in FrameMaker into the respective DITA <element> tag. Our library of approximately 1,000 pages (in PDF) converted into more than 4,000 DITA files (topics).
- Using the PDF generated from the FrameMaker source file, open the DITA map (and then each DITA topic) to verify that all content was properly formatted. This step took a significant amount of time to do as all 4,000 files needed additional clean up and validation.
- Use WebWorks to generate output for a DITA map. We created custom stationery files (specialized CSS) that transfers every DITA <element> into a specific look and feel (i.e., paragraph and character style). We have two types of output: PDF and HTML.
- Implement a content management system (CMS) to store all of our DITA files. We selected SDL, and our team training on how to use it starts tomorrow!
I have now completed my final paper. The topic I chose for this lengthy process involves technology, digital literacy, and the degradation of quality and rigor in student learning.
The title of my paper is The Ugly Side of Technology: A Breakdown of What’s Happening to Education and Strategies to Maintain the Quality and Rigor of Student Learning. Below, I have posted my abstract. Enjoy!
Technology affords people innovative learning opportunities, such as using digital tools to shape understanding. However, it produces many adverse effects that can overshadow the benefits, including the degradation in the quality and rigor of student learning. Unless parents and teachers take action, student learning will continue to suffer. In a detailed analysis, the author discusses the growth of technology by acknowledging the digitally literate generation and discussing the digital literacy narrative of a young woman. Next, the author highlights the benefits of technology, but contrasts them with the many negative effects technology causes on student learning, including the breakdown of reading for comprehension and the increase of multitasking. Finally, the author provides strategies for both parents and teachers to help maintain the appropriate and necessary use of technology. Parents and teachers must provide students with strategies so they realize that technology does not replace traditional learning and that digital literacy requires the same, if not more, rigor as traditional reading and writing.
Therefore, I say farewell and enjoy your winter break! I am glad to have shared the experience of this course with all of you and I hope to collaborate again in another course.
This week, I was really into reading about “The Digital Being” as discussed in regards to the Being Frame.
I became engrossed in the idea of how ever-growing and expanding ranges of technologies “continue to sweep over culture and into our organizations” so much that as noted, practitioners and scholars must learn to understand and address the ethical implications (241). One way, according to Digital Literacy this week, is to understand the ethical frames of technical relations. And I could not help but think here about Mr. Clinton for some reason, denying any “relations” with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. It is just where my mind unexpectedly wandered when I read the word relations. I suppose in the context of living in a world where we now must consider our technical relations in addition to our personal relations, it does seem appropriate to connect to the idea of ethics and how this inevitably will always come back to any relationship we have.
One of the most powerful ideas, for me, was this about our digital being from Katz and Rhodes: “Digital being has enabled us to forget that our values, our thinking, and our work are heavily defined by our technology, and that much of our life now exists outside our flesh, essentially in digital bodies” (239). Suddenly, just after reading this, I had a vision of my family, friends, and colleagues as these digital beings, and then I thought, how much of their real selves do I really know? What ethical implications does this have on my relationships and the way we might treat each other? Do their digital beings treat others differently than their flesh selves? I basically sat with lots of questions on my mind, and I saw the world almost in a very Matrix-like fashion where I am not sure who the real person is when I meet someone compared to the digital person.
Another idea developed under this one is that the digital being has now taken over in a way that we are not as capable as people of the past, and our “digital machines have literally replaced our ‘mental storage’ of ‘information’…” (239), especially when it comes to the workplace and writing. The specific example was how new employees struggle with writing and spelling because we are so programmed to use spell-check and grammar check systems that we no longer store the necessary information to become efficient writers. I see this with students, also. I also see it in math with the use of calculators. I have a friend who teaches math prep courses, and she tells me often of students who do not know their multiplication tables without the use of a calculator (these are adult learners.) And so now, I see that their digital being has learned these skills in a digital fashion, and when stripped of the technology tool, they are left lacking fundamental skills to survive in the work world and world in general. Are we to expect that is okay because it is the way they have learned? I find a little bit of an ethical struggle right here alone. What is the responsibility of humans today in these contexts?
The other ethical frame I want to address briefly here is the Thought Frame and quickly tie it into the Digital Being. The last questioning thoughts from the section on “Thought Frame” really had me thinking about my organization: “Does your organization conceptualize or refer to communication as a transmission of information from sender to receiver? Does it regard emotional response in the workplace as noise in the system?” (237). If we are very much defined by our digital beings in the workplace, and we communicate via email, videos, webinars, podcasts, social media, and texting more than we do f2f, isn’t it much easier to become just a receiver in the system? When our authentic selves present an emotional response to something, do we just become noise that interrupts the system? When are we allowed to present our deep, meaningful self versus our digital being? Is there a more appropriate time for one than the other? I find that I am weighing heavily how technology has changed relations and ethics together on a very basic human level: how we see how our selves and how we then communicate with each other.
Probably the most interesting reading for me this week was “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures” by Barry Thatcher, though I found all of them pretty interesting. One of the reasons I found Thatcher’s piece so interesting is that at my school we’ve been trying to increase our international student enrollment, and I’ve always wondered (on the periphery of my brain) how our website must appear to people of other cultures and countries. For example, we have a partner school in Wuhan China, the South Central University for Nationalities, where we recruit students to enroll in our Master of Science in Education with Emphasis in English. I decided to go to their website to see if and how it might differ from ours―and so much of what Thatcher explained held true!
For example, there were no pictures of people on the SCUN site, and not nearly the sheer number of pictures that we have on our website so this is an example that in studies “more diffuse websites had relatively few pictures” and perhaps the concept that the public space of a website is “not the appropriate medium for something as private as a picture” (of a person) (p.187). Also, there are a few pictures of major icons, historical buildings, a panda, and a few nice views of the campus, so this is an example of research that on Chinese Web sites “drew complexly on icons of Chinese heritage to display the significance of the collective whole (p. 187). Also, take a look at the “Accommodations” page:
It’s a clinical picture of the accommodations, with no indication of people. Compare it to the main Residence Hall page of my school’s website, where all of the pictures focus on students:
So, in thinking about our own website, we could not probably repurpose it for meeting the needs of our primary recruiting demographic (18.1 year olds who are largely from Wisconsin), but I wonder if we might create an alternative version for international students. In fact, SCUN has such a version. Both of their websites are in English, but one is clearly meant for Western, native speaking English people and the other would be for a more localized audience. It seems the best way we might do this, according to Ann Blakesdale in “Addressing Audiences in A Digital Age,” is to get “a full, accurate―and contextualized―understanding of their audiences. One way to acquire this, which was addressed by all writers from my cases, is to interact directly with members of our audiences” (220). So, I think developing a site and asking our current international students to interact with it would be a great project for us to recruit more students and serve their needs more successfully.
Japanese cell phone culture came up in more than one reading this week: in “Going Mobile,” and “Always on,” by Naomi Baron (135, 233) and “Implications of Mobility,” by Kenichi Ishii ( p. 348). Baron says that the government was pretty effective in “transforming outdoor use of keitai from talking to overwhelming texting instruments” (233), mostly because of collective governance . This results from the need to negotiate appropriate activities in public space.
However, no culture mentioned this week has been terribly effective in separating the boundaries of home and the outside world (symbolized by the tradition of removing shoes before entering the house in Japan and India, Baron, p. 230) when it comes to mobile devices.
There was a lot of data to absorb this week, and I’m afraid I got distracted on numerous occasions, stopping to look things up (I suppose this is a good thing!), but nothing disconcerted me so much as the statistic in “Always On” that 51% of American teenagers preferred land line phones. That just astounded me because I work with so many young people every day, 99% of whom seem to have cell phones, and I hardly ever hear of anyone interacting on a land line. I thought maybe it was a function of the fact that the article was published in 2008, so I did some research and found this PEW study from cnet. com (http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57400439-93/teens-prefer-texting-over-phone-calls-e-mail/ ) that says that the number has indeed gone down.
In this study, the number has gone from 30% in 2009 to 14% in 2012, so that seems more in line with what my daily experience tells me. Fourteen percent still seems high, but I am dealing with a pretty homogenous demographic, so my experience is most certainly skewed.
Examining Our Assumptions
The discussion of intercultural communication this week came shortly after I was in a workshop for intercultural communication in which we were asked to reflect on some of the assumptions we make in our communications with our international students, faculty, and staff on a whole host of issues. The presenters showed this video, which I had seen before, but I still got a good laugh and good reflection out of it, so I thought I’d share: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajq8eag4Mvc
As I think about readings this week, I am struck by the phases. Carliner notes, “Over the past 30 years, technology has affected technical communications in profound ways” (29). And indeed I stopped to consider this thought and the profoundness of the past 30 years and the ways in which technology has affected us. For a minute, I just thought about my last 30 years, and then I thought about how many of those years I have been using technology. Then I began to think more in depth about the five phases in this development of technology for technical communication. I ended with questions: what makes one a technical communicator? And what phase most affected me in profound ways? What I found to be true is this (and this will date me): I have really only been fully involved in three of the five phases. The first two were periods of my life that were not necessarily times of my life when I was 1) aware of all the world’s technologies and 2) using them in my daily life was not something I connected to my literacy skills in the sense that I was learning how to become digitally literate.
I was growing up in “The Desktop Revolution”, so Phase Two would be the time I began to become literate in the use of computers. By no means was I a technical communicator during this time, and I was not “automating publishing tasks” in any way, shape, or form. I was simply a child and then a teenager in the 80’s and the 90’s. So, yes, I am a child of the eighties, and I did not own a desktop computer during this phase of my life, and now reading about this aspect of that time period made me think quite a bit about the technology changes that were rapidly occurring around me. I did, however, immediately connect to some of the technical aspects that I read. As a matter of fact, I felt a certain sense of nostalgia when I began to read about the first PCs in the early 1980s, which used 5.25 diskettes. I remember the diskette clearly and vividly. I know what it looks like, I remember what they felt like, and I held them in my hands when I was in elementary school. What I could not have told anyone until now is that those disks only held 360,000 bytes of information. Then when I read that “by the end of the 1980s, systems had internal hard drives with up to 50MB of storage capacity,” I began to really connect to the phase of my life that I clearly remember using PCs: the 1990s.
From Phase Three: The GUI (Graphical User Interfaces) Revolution, I remember mostly this major development mentioned by Carliner: “…the movement of the Internet from a limited-use network by those working in the defense industry and at universities, to a ubiquitous communications network” (37). It was this phase of my life that I was just beginning to feel the omnipresence of the Internet. Wow! I had never seen anything like this world of information before, and now to consider the implications of how this medium affected communication really causes me to pause for a moment and appreciate the enormity of the Internet. I also found it quite interesting to reflect on this idea that the “rise of the browser” also created standards for sharing information. Sharing information during this time period was not the same as it is today. The standards for sharing information continue to evolve as we enter new phases of technological advances. This makes me think of Netiquette rules I share with my students. While these go beyond standards for sharing information, they arose from the same concept: a set of standards needed to address working in an online environment, much to do with sharing information. Furthermore, even the idea that some organizations did not necessarily want to download the plugins needed to run video and sound at the time intrigued me because now we function in a world where, I find, plugins are accepted as a natural part of the system. There might be some reluctance to download them, but for the most part, anyone using a computer or technological device knows that plugins are part of the deal.
From Phase Four: Web 1.0 came the power of the Internet and the World Wide Web among other things. I fully remember exploring the WWW, and now reading from the perspective of how it profoundly affected the world of technical communication, I am struck by how rapidly people were changing with the technology. Email made its emergence as the primary means of interpersonal communication, and it continues to thrive in the business world and, for me, the educational arena. But now I cannot remember exactly where I read it (maybe from last week’s readings), it seems that more and more often other emerging methods of communication are becoming the mode for newer generations, such as texts, tweets, and live chats. When I think about my own email communications, they have taken over much of my world, and yet, I long for good ol’ face-to-face talking. I have a love-hate relationship with email these days. I love communicating, but sometimes I would rather just pick up the phone or visit the person. Another aspect of this phase that I can easily connect to is the ability to display ever-changing content and increased capability to display both audio and visual content. When I think about how and when I first began using the Internet, I was in awe of the content available, and now thinking about how the technical aspect of it all was developed, I have a greater appreciation. I simply learned then that a hyperlink was a clickable link, and navigation bar was at the top or side of a page. I now know that those features were by design. The interface was changing and becoming what it is like today while I was learning to use the Internet and explore the Web. I could not have told you what HTML code was when I was living in this phase, but I can now. I must select to work in HTML or not in most messages I compose and most assessments I create. Before I would not have had a clue what that meant.
Finally, Phase Five: Web 2.0 is the time of my life I most connect to my technical communication skills. I was fresh out of college in 2001, and I had my first professional job at my current institution, but I was only part-time then. I began working and using a computer daily at work. As I progressed in my career, I became more and more responsible for using technology to communicate with students, staff, faculty, and others. In my personal life, I heard about MySpace, although I did not get it at first….I thought, “What the heck is MySpace?” And of course, I was drawn to social media as a form of communication. Back at work, I was communicating via technology every day, and eventually I learned to use our Learning Management Content System and Learning Management System. And at another point, I was in charge of creating a Writing Center webpage with our college web developer, so I would say I was the content provider for the web page. Honestly, I did not know how to develop web content; I had to learn to do so. I also became familiar with the term Web 2.0 tools much later when I began taking classes in E-Learning and Online Teaching. This phase for me really extended from the mid-2000s into my more recent years. Web 2.0 tools really became present in my life when I was working on my graduate classes here at UW for that program.
On a final note, from Phase Five of my life and technology for technical communication came the blog and the wiki. I am a bit embarrassed to admit I did not know that wiki originates from a Hawaiian word for fast, but now I do. And I always think of Wikipedia first when I hear or read wiki. This makes me find a way to connect to Qualman here. He notes that “Wikipedia proves the value of collaboration on a global basis (24). I find that I have spent many phases of my life in collaboration, and more and more, this collaboration involves massive use of technology. For instance, I am now involved in the creation of a MOOC for my college; this is a recent project I have been asked to join. I consider myself a novice, and I am learning more and more as I go. I am not sure I am a proponent of the MOOC, but I am forging ahead with the project in an effort to understand the MOOC and its educational value for varying audiences and populations. I have only just begun, but I can say that from the blog to the wiki to the MOOC, I am constantly moving into a new phase of my technical communication. I have lived through a wiki-world in a sense that everything seems to be moving so fast. Each time I turn around, a new phase is starting somewhere. It just keeps moving, and somehow I keep finding myself blogging or wiki-ing away. BTW, my wiki experience is limited. Yet again, another phase that I must explore more fully.
Carliner, S. (2010). Computers and technical communication in the 21st century. In Rachel Spilka (Ed.) Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. New York: Routledge.
Qualman, E. (2009). Socialnomics. Hoboken, New Jersey- John Wiley and Sons.